- Joyce, Ireland, Britain
History has proven to be less a nightmare than a boon for Joyceans in recent years. Though critics have acknowledged the historical significance of Joyce’s texts at least since T. S. Eliot first noted that Ulysses made sense of the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history,”1 the last twenty years or so have seen the development of a decisive historicist trend in Joyce studies. For Andrew Gibson and Len Platt, however, important studies of Joyce and history by scholars like Robert Spoo and James Fairhall remained frustratingly theoretical and for that reason missed the “Joycean lesson of specificity” (6).2 The essays in this volume are meant to overcome this tendency toward abstraction by employing a form of historical analysis the editors call the “London method” (17). Though they confess that, aside from themselves, there is no “London school,” they describe “a certain set of intellectual and scholarly habits that feature in the work that London Joyceans tend specifically to do” (17). These habits cohere as a more or less materialist method in which “the relation of theory to history and text” is altered (18). The practitioners of this method do not claim to offer an “accessible, final truth” (19). Indeed, they are interested primarily in the “possibility of establishing certain limits to interpretation” (19). What this generally means is a greater emphasis on the particulars of historical context, though as some of the essays demonstrate, discussions of historical abstractions are not excluded. For example, Finn Fordham’s genetic approach to Finnegans Wake uncovers Joyce’s “ironization of universal history” and his “critique of how universalization appeared in flawed attempts to justify imperialist policy” (199). In Fordham’s view, the “[t]ranshistoricism” of Joyce’s texts is precisely the effect of a continuity between particularities across time (202). This is not Hegelian totalization but a kind of “[t]ransepochal pattern hunting” that results in a “mockery of universalization” (203, 209).
The London school appears to have learned the lessons of Michel Foucault, for while it “aims at exactitude,” it is also “attentive to the possibility of historical discontinuities, ruptures, breaks” (19). Just as often, though, Joyce’s texts give evidence of surprising historical continuities and connections, as is evident in Wim Van Mierlo’s essay, which argues that “Joyce’s high notions of exile” were part of a long history of emigration in Ireland, from voyaging saints like St. Brendan to the “heyday of the Celtic Tiger” (180, 195). In this context, [End Page 577] self-exile is not a heterodox gesture but part of a general “Irish consciousness” (181). Anne Fogarty offers a different vision of continuity in her lucid analysis of the political subtleties in Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” She argues against the common conception that Parnellism is a “backward-looking romantic nationalism” (105). By looking at newspaper treatments of Ivy Day, specifically the debates over the symbolic value of the ivy leaf itself, from 1892 to 1902, Fogarty demonstrates that the “cult of Parnell,” through the tension created by (in Pierre Nora’s terms3) archive memory and cultural memory, was an effective site of “ongoing political debates” (111). The “‘thwarted dialectic’ of Parnell’s politics” (116), nicely illustrated in the ambivalence of Joe Hynes’s recitation of “The Death of Parnell,” contributes to the enigmatic historical continuities of Joyce’s story.
Fogarty is quite right to insist on context, despite the “provisional” nature of historicist readings (104). My concern, though, is that analysis of context can become an end in itself. This seems to be the case in Steven Morrison’s discussion of Joyce and Lord Byron and John Nash’s analysis of Shane Leslie’s reviews of Ulysses.4 These essays are absorbing but less for what they say about Joyce than what they say about Leslie and Byron’s biographers. The potential problem with the “London method” is that it comes perilously close to insisting on the priority of historical information. The editors may claim...